No Glove, No Love (featuring Lazy-Chef Fettuccine with Tomatoes, Garlic, and Basil)
“Family-style service is perfect! We’ll be sitting outside and our cleaning lady will sanitize the kitchen before you get here,” the client wrote after receiving a list of my COVID-World serving demands.
I won’t be able to provide individually-plated service. Instead, I’ll style the food on large platters and bring them to the table to be passed family-style. I won’t lean in to clear individual plates. I won’t refill wine glasses while guests are sitting at the table. I won’t be leaning over to see if anyone needs anything. I WILL wash the plates, glasses, and utensils after they’re set to the side where I can pick them up without getting too close to guests. I will provide outstanding freshly-cooked food. I will clean your kitchen after I’m done cooking, leaving it as spotless as when I arrived.
She was thrilled that I had agreed to remain onsite for her 10-person party rather than drop off the food as most of my clients prefer these days.
I was excited too because, while my nervous-nelly personality felt that grappling with the proximity of chef/ client interactions was risky, my perfectionist-chef personality hated abandoning full meals on people’s doorsteps. In the hours I spend preparing a feast, I develop a relationship with it. To have that final lap of plating and serving completed by a stranger feels like I’ve forsaken my newborn child to a distracted babysitter. I don’t like to relinquish control.
I slipped the elastic bands of my mask behind my ears as I pulled up to the house. Letting myself in as instructed, I found the open kitchen/ living room was indeed spotless and sanitized. White granite countertops and subway tile backsplash sparkled in the afternoon sun which beamed through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors leading to the garden outside. There, a lengthy table smocked in cream-colored linens stretched under the pergola, luminous with bouquets of dahlias and lilies, floral napkins pleated around cutlery, and empty glass globes waiting for wine. It was so nice to be back to work in people’s homes, even if I had to be gloved and masked. There’s a vicarious thrill I get from dipping into stranger’s lives, especially when they’ve cleaned it all up for guests. I get a glimpse of how people want to be seen, which is probably a good distance from how they’re actually seen or how they see themselves. I know the aspirations and fantasies of a well-set table.
I had an hour and a half before guests arrived and set to work immediately; preheating the oven, unpacking platters, foiling up sheet pans. On the menu, there was a rosemary flatbread with Crater Lake blue cheese, seedless red grapes, and honey from some bee-keeping neighbors of ours. There was an asparagus, chevre, lemon spread smoothed onto homemade fig baguette toasts. There were prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with a garlicky honey vinaigrette dip. Then they would move onto an heirloom tomato salad with burrata, fresh basil, pink salt, and a balsamic reduction. The main course featured a porcini-crusted filet of beef with scoops of salty herb butter melting on top, a Meyer lemon seared halibut, crispy smashed Yukon Gold potatoes, and Brussels sprouts with bacon jam. I would end the meal with a nectarine and blackberry cobbler with ginger biscuits.
In normal times, I would have hired a server to be a liaison between the kitchen and the guests, but I knew it would be harder to ensure the safety of both the clients and my staff (myself included) if a server was there. We all get lax after a big meal or a few glasses of wine. Me doing everything alone family-style felt safer.
The clients arrived, thrilled to find me prepping away while masked and gloved. Moments later, guests were opening bottles and pulling up chairs around a low stone-topped table in the backyard.
With a fan of cocktail napkins in one hand and a platter of apps in the other, I introduced myself to the group.
“I’m Alison and I’m your chef and server tonight. I’ll be doing a sort of long-distance service this evening. I’m going to be throwing platters of food in your general direction rather than bringing them close.” They laughed and nodded appreciatively. “I’m starting you off tonight with the rosemary flatbread topped with a melted local cheese…” Oohs and aahs followed, along with a few suggestions of where I could place the next platter and offers to help. God, I love my job. As someone who is consistently disappointed with strangers in public or on the news, I’m reassured almost every time I cook in a person’s home. This group was lovely, the perfect party to peek out from lockdown with for a night.
Back in the kitchen, I was maneuvering full sheet pans in and out of the oven. The beef needed to rest, the fish would be done in 5, the potatoes would continue to crisp perfectly. I could feel the sweat on my hairline as well as my upper lip, though that was covered by my mask. I was floundering to find counter space for the porcelain bowls, the large ceramic platters, and the food coming out of the oven when the guest of honor came into the kitchen. He was dressed in a white linen Don Johnson/ Miami Vice style suit with a matching white fedora. He looked hilarious, and I think he was in on the joke. I think.
“Hey, you’re doing such a great job here tonight. I just wanted you to know that you could take your mask off if you’d like.” He and the guests were all mask-free.
And just for a millisecond, everything in the room got very, very slow.
I hadn’t expected that at all. I had been thinking about the food, of course, and if they were having a good time, and what I needed to do next. I guess I had expected clients to demand more safety measures, not less. It had never occurred to me that someone would suggest I unmask.
I want to say here that this wasn’t the move of a Trump-thumpin’- mask-denying-Covid-is-a-hoax bunch. It was a good-looking-cool-rich-people-probably-don’t-get-Covid peer pressure moment instead. Not that he cared so much if I had the mask on, just that it was ok with them if I took it off. They trusted me now. I was in their club.
I was dumbfounded and I leaned into the slow-motion response my brain had offered me.
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Yeahhhhhhhh, ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm…”
It was tempting honestly because cooking with a mask on is challenging. You can’t easily taste the food you’re cooking to adjust last-minute levels of seasoning, you can’t hydrate quickly, you sweat profusely. I really thought about it for a second.
“No, thank you. You see, I’m protecting you guys AND me. It’s not that I think you’ve go…” I trailed off because I didn’t want to get into whether I thought they were careful or not. My mind raced to examples of the unsafe behavior I used to talk about when doing HIV outreach years ago. Guys that would say, “You can trust me, I’m clean,” instead of wearing a condom. It’s almost exactly the same thing but with less intimacy so there’s a higher tendency to be casual about it.
“Thanks, though,” I continued, “I appreciate the sentiment.” I kind of curtsied in a submissive manner that I knew would end the conversation.
He tapped the brim of his fedora with his cool guy index finger and returned to the party outside.
I didn’t let it slow me down that night, I’m a professional after all. And they were a great crowd, just a bit… loose.
The next day, happy to be back in quarantine with a good man, a rambunctious dog, and an indifferent cat, Francis and I pulled fresh tomatoes and basil from our garden and made this lazy-chef fettuccine. It feels good to be safe.
NOTE: This recipe can be made one of two ways: you can go uber lazy and just toss the cut tomatoes into the pan with the onions and garlic and it’s done, or you can slip the tomatoes into the boiling pasta water (before the pasta) to remove the skins. It’s a little better without the tomato skins, but slightly more work so do as you will.
Lazy-Chef Fettuccine with Tomatoes, Garlic, and Basil
4 servings (or 2 large “I’m spending the day doing nothing but eating pasta” servings)
- ½ pound fettuccine
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ½ yellow onion, chopped into ¼ inch pieces
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 pounds (more or less) of fresh tomatoes
- 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a large skillet, heat the olive oil on medium heat.
- Add the onions, salt generously, and drop the heat to low to cook the onions for about 10 minutes. They should be golden and transparent.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to boil.
- Chop the tomatoes into 1/2 inch pieces (sometimes I leave them larger, sometimes I cut cherry tomatoes in half. Lazy lazy lazy and it still works.)
- Turn the heat up on the onions and add the chopped garlic. After about 30 seconds (you’ll smell the garlic start to cook) add the tomatoes and let them cook gently on low heat. You don’t want them to fall apart completely, just get a little loose. You’re creating a lazy lumpy mixture, not a marinara. Taste and season with salt and pepper to your liking.
- Taking note of what the pasta cooking instructions say on the package, put the fettuccine into the boiling water, and cook for 5 minutes LESS than the package advises. BUT before you drain the pasta, scoop about a ½ cup of pasta water out into a cup or bowl. This will be used to thicken and meld the sauce. You probably won’t use the full ½ cup, but that starchy water is magic so it’s good to have extra just in case.
- Put the half-cooked fettuccine into the tomato/ garlic/ onion mixture and stir over medium heat. Add a little bit of the pasta water (1/4 cup), and check for consistency. The pasta is finishing cooking while drinking up the sauce so the end result looks like you don’t have enough sauce… but trust me, it’s inside the pasta. Let the pasta and sauce simmer for another couple of minutes.
- Cut the basil into a chiffonade, or simply snip it with scissors and stir into pasta.
- Grate fresh parmesan on and relax. Being lazy pays off when you’ve got fresh summer tomatoes.
LESS LAZY VERSION (with skinned tomatoes)
- Place the whole tomatoes into the boiling water for 30 seconds and fish them out with a large spoon. I don’t dump them out because the boiling water is working double duty on both the tomatoes and the pasta. Run the tomatoes under cold water for a second and the skins will slip off easily. The skinned tomatoes don’t need to be chopped up as they’ll fall apart with the onion/ garlic/ oil mixture when the heat hits them.
- Continue with number 2 in the instructions above.
And here is a clip of me making this dish on KATU’s show Afternoon Live: